April 1, 2011— -- Military experts fear that America's reduced role in enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone will cripple efforts to keep Moammar Gadhafi's forces from battering the rag tag army trying to topple him.
They fear that without U.S. willingness to go after Gadhafi's troops and equipment from the air, and without U.S. ground controllers pinpointing targets, that the effort to shield the rebels will fail.
"The idea that the AC-130s and the A-10s and American air power is grounded unless the place goes to hell is just so unnerving that I can't express it adequately," said Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C. "The only thing I would ask is, please reconsider that."
Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates wondered out loud whether the NATO airstrikes can succeed without the U.S. in the lead.
"They certainly have made that commitment, and we will see," Gates said.
Gates said the U.S. would pull all combat planes from operations over Libya on Saturday. It formally ceded command and control of the operation to NATO on Thursday.
NATO announced today that in the last 24 hours, it flew 178 sorties, including 74 that were strike sorties. The other flights were surveillance or refueling flights.
In the previous 24 hours under U.S. command, the allies flew 204 sorties, including 110 strike sorties.
The British and the French, who are expected to take the lead with airstrikes, are "highly competent and they've proved it," said Anthony Cordesman, an international defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The question isn't whether they're competent. It's will they get the command and control guidance and electronic intelligence from the U.S. needed to be successful," he said.
Experts say that NATO's mission will be increasingly difficult as Gadhafi's forces, often indistinguishable from opposition rebels, become enmeshed in urban areas.
Coalition forces "captured all of what we may call the low-hanging fruit, the armored columns, those targets in obvious positions on open roads, sitting on open terrain," Shashank Joshi of the British think tank Royal United Services Institute told Reuters.
"What we may now be left with is heavy weaponry on the ground that's more difficult to find and isolate because it is next to urban targets," he said.
Cordesman said the dynamic could pose a challenge for NATO and European militaries which are not as well equipped as the U.S. with aerial surveillance technologies.
"What makes this harder and harder is that NATO's posture makes it particularly sensitive to civilian casualties," he said.
Mounting civilian casualties could weaken the coalition and add pressure to conduct airstrikes against Gadhafi forces more sparingly.
Can NATO Protect Libyan Rebel Army Without U.S. In The Lead
Retired Army Gen. James Dubick with the Institute for the Study of War said NATO may ultimately need combat air controllers on the ground.
"I have the greatest respect for NATO's ability to control the skies, and am proud of the success in the mission so far.... But Gadhafi's attacks on civilians continue, and we cannot be assured that air power alone can stop them," he said.
Dubick said the coalition needs military experts -- including Americans -- on the ground to help guide the airstrikes in sticky situations between where opposition forces mix-in with the rebels and civilians. He also said NATO should provide advisers to train the rebels and prepare for a peacekeeping force to follow.
"Right now, they are more like 'guys with guns' than an organized force and they need help. Air power in support of Croats in Bosnia or the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan worked because both indigenous forces were well organized and capable of taking advantage of the air support we and our allies provided. The rebels are no such force."
The White House has acknowledged that the Libyan rebels are "untrained, inexperienced people" who are "not a professional military." But the administration has been reluctant to provide weapons, and ruled out the use of U.S. military trainers on the ground.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said this week that NATO commander Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard has at his disposal more than 220 aircraft of every size and capability and 12 ships ready to enforce the naval arms embargo.
Gates and Mullen said U.S. combat planes will remain on standby and that aerial surveillance planes and refueling tankers will still be in the air.
For the past two weeks, U.S. ships have launched more than 191 cruise missiles at Libyan air defenses and communications outposts and warplanes have dropped at least 455 precision bombs in the campaign to establish a no-fly zone and stop attacks on rebels by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Officials said Gadhafi's army has lost as much as 25 percent of its firepower, but it still outnumbers the Libyan opposition by 10-to-1.